Loot Boxes Investigated as Possible Gambling

loot boxes

With the Christmas season almost upon us, karma has decided to give gamers a possible early present.

The Belgium Gaming Commission began an investigation last week centered on the idea that loot boxes in video games are a form of gambling. Though they didn’t conclusively state that they feel they are gambling, they do feel that loot boxes and gambling share common elements. Belgian site VTM News (note: the article is in German) cites Belgium’s Justice Minister, who is calling for an outright ban of loot boxes.

The site links a report that discusses the commission’s intent regarding loot boxes. It was initially believed the commission had determined that loot boxes are definitely gambling. That turned out to be an error in interpreting what Google Translate had spit out. Instead, the report frames the intent of the commission’s investigation. The report points out that it recognizes that developers and publishers can be “aggressive” with in-game microtransactions like loot boxes, and frequently target “young people” with them.

The difficulties of regulation with current laws are also touched. It calls for “closer cooperation between governments, software developers, and rating agencies,” and says that “with the right rules and consistent enforcement,” it’s possible to “protect players from the harmful effects of gambling without compromising” the games themselves.”

Though no formal conclusion has been made, the Belgian Minister of Justice has chimed in personally. “Mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of the child,” he is quoted as saying. He has also called for an outright ban of boxes in games across the European Union, saying people shouldn’t have to pay money for something when they do not know what they’re getting.

This week, Hawaii decided to jump in. Unlike Belgium, however, it was not an investigation but a definitive stance. Hawaiian State Representative Chris Lee (D) held a press conference and specifically called out the “predatory behavior” of loot boxes in video games. He also highlights the danger present in aggressively pushing loot boxes on minors. Also unlike Belgium, Rep. Lee singled out a specific culprit: EA DICE’s Star Wars: Battlefront II. He called the game “a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money.”

EA has had a rotten month, all things considered. They’ve been pummeled with rage over their implementation of Star Cards in the game and the system’s stinginess. I detailed some of the blowback in a previous article. The backlash has been so severe that both Disney and LucasFilm both let their displeasure with EA’s handling of their property be known. As a result of the blowback, EA temporarily removed the Star Cards from the game prior to its launch. Since the progression system ties so closely to the Star Cards, that has made the game a furious grind.

That blowback hasn’t remained exclusive to Battlefront II. They have also had to backpedal some with their recently released driving game, Need for Speed: Payback. After similar complaints about the system and its similarly stingy behavior, EA has dialed back the need for loot boxes in progression. Entirely why a driving game needs a loot box system is a concept that personally baffles me.

With Belgium and Hawaii looking into the possible regulation of games with loot boxes in them, it seems that governments are finally starting to cotton on to the idea that loot boxes are a form of gambling. Last month, I wrote about the debate people have been having about loot boxes and their ties to gambling mechanics. In it, I mentioned that it wasn’t legally considered gambling because the various worldwide gambling commissions didn’t see them as gambling. Their sticking point was the traditional definition of gambling. It couldn’t be considered gambling under the traditional view unless money could be lost with no gain whatsoever. The thinking was that loot boxes always contained something of value, even if it was unwanted.

The Belgian Gambling Commission, however, seems to appreciate the fact that although loot boxes always contain something of value, that value is dependent on the desires of the person purchasing the loot box. When players purchase loot boxes, they are hoping to receive certain items that are of value to them.

Using Overwatch as an example, players hope to unlock legendary skins for their preferred characters. Let’s say I want to snag a legendary skin for Soldier 76, a character I frequently use. If I purchase a loot box (would never happen, but let’s pretend) and receive sprays, emotes, or a legendary skin for Zarya, I still received some things of perceived value. But their value to me would be lessened because I didn’t want them. I wanted a Soldier 76 skin, not a Zarya skin.

Developers like Blizzard are aware of the value players place on specific items like skins. Now, governments and gambling commissions are becoming aware of the value of those gambling mechanics in loot boxes.

It won’t stop with Belgium and Hawaii. If Belgium does come down hard on loot boxes, the EU will take notice. EU regulators are notoriously harsh on anti-consumer behavior; just ask Google and Microsoft. They’re almost definitely keeping an eye on the Belgian investigation and will follow suit if Belgium drops the anvil on loot boxes.

The same is happening stateside. Hawaii has had conversations with other states, and the belief is that Hawaii’s regulations will set a precedent that will reverberate across the country. That might lead the ESRB to consider rating games with loot boxes AO, or Adults Only. Historically, and games rated AO here are doomed. Major retailers refuse to carry AO-rated games.

And the anti-loot box sentiment is spreading even farther. The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation in Victoria, Australia has they consider loot boxes a form of gambling. It’s only one state, but it’s also possible that the Australian government may take notice. Australia is notorious for coming down hard on video games. Might they do the same here?

These investigations and rulings don’t spell the end of loot boxes just yet. Just because Belgium, Hawaii, and Victoria are railing against them doesn’t mean the EU, the US, and Australia, respectively, will follow suit. In the US’s case, all 50 states usually see things from different viewpoints, sometimes ridiculously so. As a Florida native, I can attest to the backward thinking of our State Legislature. But the sentiment against loot boxes sure is getting harsher. Time will only tell if that leads to actions that will legislate loot boxes into oblivion.

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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